RISING Mindfulness is everywhere – but do you think people really ‘get it’, or has it become just another consumer distraction?
BEN IRVINE, author of Mindfulness & The Big Questions ‘Mindfulness in theory should be a way of bringing people out of themselves. The whole point is to pay attention to what's around you, not just your own breathing, your own body, but the world. This huge, vast, amazing world that surrounds us. There's a tendency I think in mindfulness for people to try to go to another dimension or retreat into themselves as a sanctuary against reality, rather than it being a way of actually confronting reality, facing up to reality and accepting what's happening around you.’
‘Mindfulness is being able to face life in such a way that you're no longer hiding’
RISING So you’d say we don’t do that enough? Are we living in an age of escapism, fuelled by anxiety?
BI ‘What’s the opposite of existential anxiety? Somebody who wakes up in the morning and says: “Things are fine; my life, although it has problems, challenges, it’s basically fine. I'm empowered, I'm capable, I can do stuff, I can achieve stuff, I can change stuff, I can have a constructive practical day.” That’s like a healthy mindset. How often do you hear that? Really how often do you hear people saying: “Well, what can I do? How can I change things?” I think the fact that we're not asking ourselves these questions on a regular basis is an indication that we're neurotic and anxious and slaving around looking for answers, when really the answers are just to have a good day, live a good life and do good things.’
RISING It’s a nice idea, but how do you actually go about getting past that self-absorbed, anxious state?
BI ‘Mindfulness is the simple act of paying attention to your experience, while also cultivating a conscious aloofness towards your thoughts, sensations and feelings. It creates a little bit of a distance between your inner self, the bit of you which is making decisions and who’s aware, and all the things that occur to that self. Your feelings, your sensations, your thoughts, your worries.
‘As soon as that distance occurs then you get to make a judgement about your life and about all the things that are happening to you. Across that distance you can make changes and react differently to things. It really is just a case of taking a step back, creating that distance, focusing your breathing, whatever technique works for you for total mindfulness. Then you'll be less involved in things, you'll be less overwhelmed by things and you can just calmly make positive changes.’
RISING So what is the point of mindfulness – what’s the end result?
BI ‘The end point of mindfulness is being able to face life in such a way that you're no longer hiding. You're no longer making the excuses for yourself; you're no longer coming up with feelings that deny life; you’re not trying to escape into nirvana. You're just living in a way that is engaged, practical, aware and through that kind of engagement, meaning just spontaneously emerges. Meaning just comes from doing stuff that you enjoy and you feel is important.’
‘The things that are holding people back are just ideas – just fears learnt from social media or news’
RISING Do you have to do that stuff mindfully for that meaning to be generated?
BI ‘That's a brilliant question: the answer is basically yes. If you don’t do it mindfully your meaning will be imposed upon you by external circumstances. Although that can be good, we can become involved in shared projects – if I’m playing football for instance the meaning is getting distributed throughout the team. I’m not just like a lone wolf out there. At the end of the day, I'm the one who chose to play that game of football in the first place, so sooner or later you have to take responsibility for making meaning out of your life and mindfulness. Mindfulness is basically that responsibility in a nutshell.’
RISING So, describe what a mindful moment feels like – and why do you recommend meditation to achieve it?
BI ‘I was sitting on some black rocks on the shore of Lindisfarne Island, looking across to the Northumberland coast. The North Sea was calm, punctuated only by two seals ducking and gliding in the water. I watched those seals for ages. I felt completely at peace, with the world and with myself. My thoughts and feelings came and went, flickering and fading like the soft morning light on the water’s surface; I was aware of them, yet I was undistracted by them. My focus belonged only to those two seals, and the sea, and the smudge of land on the horizon beyond.
‘We can’t spend all our time watching seals, knitting jumpers, hang-gliding or doing whatever it is that makes us naturally mindful. Instead, we can muster up a state of mindfulness anywhere and anytime by deliberately paying attention to an aspect of our current experience. This deliberate effort is known as meditation.’
RISING A lot of mindfulness sounds like passive, hippified bullshit – just accepting things as they are. It seems like a lot of things in the world could do with changing?
BI ‘People often talk in mindfulness about how you must accept; accept your feelings, accept your sensations, accept what's happening around you. Sometimes people say it's like clouds in the sky, just see your thoughts as being like clouds. The problem with that is, yes, you accept that the clouds are there but you don't get to do anything about the clouds, they just go through the sky. If we all engaged in that kind of acceptance we’d be cloud-gazing, lying on our backs doing nothing. You can accept the situation and still endeavour to change it, and I call that engaged acceptance. You look dispassionately, calmly and rationally at what's happening around you, you see what it is and you accept what it is, and then you ask yourself “well, what do I want to change about this situation?”’
‘You have to accept the situation in all its reality to have a hope of changing it at all’
RISING Do you think we're all too ready to just accept things as they are and just muddle along and not really try to change things?
BI ‘I think that's right, yes. I honestly don't think people really admit that to themselves sometimes. People are far too ready to blame others for situations that we find ourselves in. I always come back to this point of: what can I do? I think that's such a wonderfully healthy philosophy of life. What can I do? Of course you have to accept the situation in all its reality to have a hope of changing it at all. You can't just sail around blindly, not knowing what you're dealing with. That’s engaged acceptance; accepting what's happening around you and endeavouring to change it and improve it.’
RISING Do you think that social media and the rolling news cycle are making us more anxious?
BI ‘For a lot of people out there, what they've actually been worrying about and the things that are holding them back are just ideas, just fears that are learnt from social media, or the internet or news. They're really having a devastating, material, negative impact on somebody's life. In the meanwhile that person could actually have been out there doing things, making a positive difference. Mindfulness is the way to break into that vicious circle, it's the way to say, “Look, all these ideas are just ideas, what's really going on is what's happening right in front of you, right now; what can I do right now to improve the world?” Mindfulness is helping you break out, I think.’
RISING One of the most toxic things we’ve noticed is that mindfulness is becoming compulsory – we’re made to feel guilty if we don’t do it, but who has the time, really?
BI ‘Yes – I brush my teeth, I have my shower, get dressed and tidied up and now I'm supposed to meditate as well? I know exactly what you mean. For me, that kind of meditating where you just stop everything – I don't do that very often. I might do if I've just finished a big project – I’ll go down to the river and I sit there, and I look at the water for ten minutes and really enjoy the moment. But most of my meditations are woven into my daily life. For me, the big one is walking and cycling. If I pop to the shops I'll say to myself “this is going to be a meditative walk”. You've got time to walk unless you're going nowhere at all, so there's always a way of being meditative.’
WHAT NEXT? Get more mindful with a simple meditation exercise from Irvine’s book Mindfulness & The Big Questions. ‘If you have a timer, set it to beep in about ten minutes’ time. Then sit on a hard chair, with your back straight, and place your palms gently on your thighs.You can keep your eyes open or shut – whichever you prefer. Now simply breathe, slowly and deeply, while focusing intently on each breath as it enters and exits your mouth or nostrils. Really observe what each breath feels like, as though the sensation of breathing were the only thing in the universe that mattered. If a thought pops into your head, just acknowledge it – “oh, there goes a thought” – and bring your attention back to your breathing. Whenever your attention wanders (and it will) just acknowledge where it has wandered to – “ah, there are my toes” – then bring your focus back to your breathing. Ten minutes of pure existence.’
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on health, exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.